By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow
For residents of Hayneville, Alabama, raw sewage seeping into front yards is not a thing of nightmares but rather a distressing reality that often accompanies rain showers or storms. Due to insufficient wastewater infrastructure, many communities like Hayneville have been forced to endure human waste backing up into homes, sewage flooding yards, and stormwater collecting in shared community spaces and school playgrounds.
More than two million Americans have limited access to safe wastewater and sanitation systems. This gap in access disproportionately impacts rural communities, individuals living in poverty, and people of color. In some towns, problems with wastewater management have persisted for generations, posing serious public health risks to residents.
For Zach Lowenstein, who received a Master of Public Health with an environmental health concentration from the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, addressing these wastewater infrastructure deficiencies and public health concerns is at the forefront of his work. As a program manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lowenstein heads a joint initiative between the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap.” This project will directly address wastewater needs in underserved communities, like Haynesville, nationwide.
Lowenstein describes his role in directing this initiative, his passion for advancing public and environmental health, and how his time at PHHP prepared him for leadership positions in both federal government and wastewater management.
Tell us more about the ‘Closing America’s Wastewater Access Gap’ initiative.
EPA has partnered with USDA to jointly leverage our technical assistance resources to help historically underserved communities identify and pursue federal funding opportunities to address their wastewater needs. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $11.7 billion through the Clean Water State Revolving Funds, which is a historic amount of funding available for helping communities with both drinking water and wastewater projects. The people in these communities, in some cases, have raw sewage in their yards from their improperly functioning wastewater systems. This is a direct public health threat, where exposure to raw sewage can have immediate negative health impacts. This initiative will help communities connect with available resources to finally address these long-standing issues. We aim to be very involved in these communities, visiting multiple times in the past year, and are committed to helping them thrive as best as we can.
What are some of the short- and long-term goals of this project?
This pilot initiative will help each participating community get the information and resources needed to identify the right type of wastewater system(s) for its needs and to position it to apply for federal funding. This is the first step toward getting safe, effective and affordable sanitation in these communities. The long-term goal is two-fold. First, seeing the communities that are applying for funding eventually get to construction and completion of their projects. And second, helping other communities with similar needs across the country, using this pilot experience as a model.
What is your favorite aspect of working on this program?
It has been both eye-opening and humbling to oversee an initiative like this. I have traveled to many of the 11 communities that are part of this initiative and have met with folks experiencing significant wastewater challenges in their own backyards. It is something that should not be going on in 2023 in the United States, and I am hopeful that what we’re doing in these communities will make a significant impact. To know that we are making a difference, and helping these communities get to “Step 1” of what needs to be done to finally correct these long-standing public health and environmental justice issues has been incredibly meaningful to me. What’s great about this work for me is that it isn’t just work — this is something that directly relates to what I am interested in, which is both environmental protection and public health, as well as helping disadvantaged communities dealing with environmental justice concerns. My UF M.P.H. helped to prepare me for my career with the EPA, as well as laying the groundwork for my specialty in safeguarding public health from environmental concerns.
What are some of the biggest challenges and successes you’ve experienced in your career or throughout your work addressing inequities in wastewater access, as well as public health disparities more generally?
One of the biggest challenges in addressing inequities in wastewater access, for my first few years at EPA, was that there wasn’t a clear avenue to address these issues. With the $50 billion investment in water infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding and heavy focus in technical assistance at EPA, we are now finally able to help address this very important issue, which I consider a success in itself. Despite this, it is still challenging to me knowing that we are only just scraping the tip of the iceberg. There are many obstacles to overcome in the communities that we are assisting through this initiative, and there are so many other communities out there that desperately need this help to begin with.